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The future of concrete may come from ancient Rome — and Rolla

Inside the Roman Colosseum. The central arena was originally covered by a wooden platform.
Berly McCoy
Inside the Roman Colosseum. The central arena was originally covered by a wooden platform.

Many ancient Roman structures made of concrete are still standing nearly 2,000 years after they were built.

A chemical engineering professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology is hoping to find a way to tap into that strength and longevity for a modern version of the building material.

“Every technology that you look at these days stems from what has already existed,” said Monday Uchenna Okoronkwo. “You can decide to scrap old technology and start anew, but I think the wisest thing to do is learn from what is good from the old technology, discard what is bad, and then combine the good from both the older approaches and modern approaches to generate the future.”

Ancient Romans made their concrete much differently. They used lime as a binder, incorporated local volcanic rock and had to use lower temperatures because they didn’t have high-powered furnaces.

“The mixtures they used are quite unique. Some of the materials are not readily available today, and the exact recipes are lost to time,” Okoronkwo said. “But we can look at it chemically, and then do some characterization to study the composition.”

Dr. Monday Uchenna Okoronkwo
Michael Pierce
Missouri S&T
Monday Uchenna Okoronkwo

The National Science Foundation granted Okoronkwo $675,000 to support his project for the next five years. He will be working with Missouri S&T graduate and undergraduate students on the research.

“Roman concrete can withstand aggressive environments. This project is aimed at harnessing the best properties of both ancient and modern approaches to come up with something new and better,” Okoronkwo said.

In addition to developing better concrete, Okoronkwo said, using lower temperatures in the manufacturing process as the Romans did could make this new brand of building material better for the environment.

“We’re definitely looking at this project as one of the ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the next generation of concrete materials,” he said.

Okoronkwo said the goal is to have recommendations ready within five years that could be shared with the private sector to test new versions of concrete so they could be adopted into construction practices.

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.